by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace

Writing about the common good in his encyclical, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis observes: “The common good calls for social peace; whenever this is violated, violence always ensues”. (No. 157)

This week we have seen Pope Francis’ insight written in outsized capital letters as the United States brings its military presence in Afghanistan to an end. Today, 20 years after 9/11 and the murderous attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, we remember the kneejerk response of the United States to these atrocities. During the fearful hours after the destruction and incredible loss of life that day, it was already clear that the Bush Administration was vowing in-kind revenge. On the plane that was flying President Bush to safety around the United States, he reportedly vowed swift and punishing military action against those who perpetrated the suicide attacks against the United States.

A description of that night at the White House offers a view of this attitude: “The Bush team’s first reaction to the attacks was one of stunned fury; that this could have happened, shock that it did, overwhelming sorrow for the dead, and a compelling sense of urgency that we had to respond and do so quickly.” President George Bush responded that same terrible day instructing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to mount a serious military response.

It is understandable that the leaders of our nation would react in this way. We live in a world where the biblical “eye for an eye” holds sway. Some 3000 U.S. citizens were killed at the Twin Towers and 6000 injured. Horrible! Something had to be done. But once again we have come to understand in vivid statistics that violence begets violence and brings about further terrible consequences.

What would have been the outcome if someone in the Bush Administration had warned of the incredible loss of life, U.S., Iraqi and Afghan, which would result from these acts of vengeance? What if someone had suggested another approach – efforts by the intelligence community, for example, to find the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and bring them to justice in the eyes of the whole world at the International Court of Justice? Did anyone in the Bush Administration question seriously its simplistic acceptance that a terrible act of war had to be countered with another? Or months later, why were the voices questioning the lie that Iraq was developing a nuclear capability not listened to? In a word, what if thought had been given to the nonviolent response of John F. Kennedy and Nikita Krushchev when our two countries stood on the brink of a suicidal nuclear exchange during the Cuban Missile Crisis? Why not have cited learnings from the futile Vietnam War?

Literally millions of people filled the streets of cities around the world and clamored that “War is not the Answer”. The leaders of the United States and its coalition ignored this enormous outpouring of pleas for restraint. Despite these desperate warnings and recent history, U.S-led forces poured “shock and awe” on Afghanistan beginning one month after 9/11. Then in March of 2003 they invaded Iraq.

We do not have to wait for history to judge that both of these vengeful overkills proved dreadfully wrong. The mind-numbing statistics of Iraqis, Afghans and Americans killed stand as a frightening testament to the insanity of it all. It is estimated that thousands of U.S. and coalition forces were killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Afghans and Iraqis killed in that period are in the hundreds of thousands. And arguably we leave those countries, particularly Afghanistan, in worse condition after twenty years of “defending democracy” there.

In the next several weeks this column will survey the myriad situations which provoke violence and actions which strive to replace them with the ethic of nonviolence. The growing Catholic Nonviolence Initiative will be our guide in this series.


Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.

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